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    Using a Bluetooth LE wireless module to accelerate time-to-market

    Courtesy: Nordic Semiconductor

    Wireless connectivity makes dumb products intelligent. Smart devices can transmit information about their surroundings and conditions while receiving instructions and updates. That in turn enables functionality that’s impossible for products operating in isolation.

    One example is a smart streetlight; by adding connectivity, the light can report whether it’s overheating and therefore likely to fail soon. It can also report its position allowing maintenance crews to arrive quickly and affect a repair before pedestrians are plunged into darkness. The streetlight could also be used as a platform for other monitoring technology such as air quality or noise pollution. Looking the other way, utilities could, for example, send an instruction over the wireless link to temporarily brighten the illumination to aid first responders attending a road traffic accident.

    The beneficial impacts of wireless tech are a key reason for its booming popularity. For example, Bluetooth LE—a key connectivity technology for consumer, smart home, computer peripherals, and industrial automation among other applications—is set to reach 5.9 billion shipments in 2024, up from 4.9 billion in 2022.

    But there is one challenge that holds back even greater wireless adoption – RF engineering is notoriously tricky. That puts off inexperienced engineers.

    Because of Nordic Semiconductor’s efforts to abstract away much of the complexity by offering comprehensive software and hardware design tools, plus reference designs, implementing a wireless design has become easier – but it’s still not trivial. Modules can offer a simpler route to market.

    Wireless for the experienced 

    If you have enough RF expertise, designing a fully-functioning, optimized, and certified wireless circuit is practical. Especially if you base the circuit on a highly integrated wireless SoC from Nordic’s nRF52 or nRF53 Series. That’s because the chips already include processor(s), memory, and many of the peripheral devices and I/O interfaces you’ll need for your end-product. These components are all embedded onto the Nordic chip and optimized to work seamlessly together.

    But there’s much more to an RF design than the SoC. The designer will also need to worry about the design and position of the antenna, impedance matching circuits, power regulation, component orientation, PCB trace length, crosstalk, electromagnetic interference (EMI), and plenty of other taxing design decisions. And things can get even tougher when developing a multiprotocol design that, for example, combines Bluetooth LE and Wi-Fi into a single product. Such a device will require more than one antenna with each needing its own impedance matching requirements.

    Once you’re done with the development, the next step is a lengthy and costly testing and certification process.

    If you get it right, there are some advantages to doing it from scratch. For example, you can closely match the wireless circuit performance to your application by trading off range or throughput for superior battery life. Or trading off antenna sensitivity against a more compact solution. It’s also possible to lower the Bill of Materials (BoM) and produce a more compact solution by designing from scratch.

    But if you get the design even slightly wrong, you might face multiple design iterations to achieve a satisfactory performance. That costs time and money – and prolongs the time-to-market.

    The benefits of a module 

    For the developer with less RF engineering experience a module can make things much easier. The module maker has already completed the challenging parts of the RF design allowing you to drop-in the solution to your design – confident it will function well.

    When using a module, the development cycle for the wireless product will be drastically shortened – allowing the product to reach market quicker. Alternatively, because much less time will be needed on the RF subsystem design, the development team can allocate more hours to working on other product hardware and firmware features that will really differentiate the end-product from rivals.

    Module makers have lots of experience, so the performance of their devices is high. They are also experts at squeezing the best performance into the smallest space, keeping end-product form factors nice and compact. For example, to reduce the device footprint, module makers have access to specialist packaging technology that allows them to incorporate wafer level chip scale packages (WLCSP) alongside passive components to help accommodate the SoC, RF Front End, Power Management IC (PMIC), and chip antenna in the smallest area.

    Further, modules makers are quick to embrace the latest SoCs from Nordic so you can be assured of the best performing SoC for the job. For example, there are dozens of modules with the high-end nRF5340 and nRF52840 SoCs together with those for Nordic’s mid-range and entry-level SoCs. Module makers are also already working on designs using Nordic’s fifth generation solutions, the nRF54H and nRF54L Series SoCs. There are also several module options that combine Nordic Bluetooth LE SoCs with the nRF7002 Wi-Fi Companion IC for developers needing this multiprotocol alternative.

    Tested and pre-certified 

    With a discrete RF design, considerable time and money could be needed for the weeks of testing and design iterations needed to get things compliant with RF regulations and Bluetooth SIG requirements. And even after a successful test, it can take more weeks for certification to come through, delaying sales.

    In contrast, modules are typically supplied tested and pre-certified to industry requirements. Providing the module is incorporated into the product design without modification, this compliance carries over to the end-product.

    Working with Nordic’s module partners 

    Nordic has teamed up with dozens of module makers through its Nordic Partner Program. These companies are trusted design partners and have worked with Nordic for many years. They know our technology inside and out. That means if you source your module from a Nordic partner you are guaranteed to get the highest performing product using the latest hardware and firmware – you can’t buy better.

    Designing an RF subsystem from scratch is possible and does potentially bring some optimization, space, and cost advantages. But it’s a job for a highly experienced engineering team. If you’d rather accelerate your project schedule, eliminate RF testing and compliance, and focus on what really differentiates your product from the competition then a module is the way to go. Things are made even easier by purchasing a module from a Nordic partner because you are then assured of the best service, the latest technology, and the widest range of options.

    Better yet, when basing your design on a module from a Nordic partner, you are still guaranteed support from Nordic and will still be able to use the company’s development tools and Software Development Kit to build and test application software. Finally, if you base your design on a module but later want to migrate to a discrete RF design when volumes really ramp up, Nordic will assist in that design transition.

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